While the world is struggling to contain the epidemic of Somali pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean, a new "copycat" phenomenon is emerging on the other side of the continent, in West Africa, where piracy is expanding rapidly.
The new piracy hotspot is the Gulf of Guinea, off the coasts of Nigeria and Benin. The latest case is the MT Halifax, a Malta-flagged oil tanker with about 25 crew members, which was seized this week by pirates off the coast of southern Nigeria, near the city of Port Harcourt in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
In a separate attack, a Nigerian vessel with links to the oil industry was reportedly seized in the same region on Wednesday, although few details are known. Another vessel was captured by pirates off the coast of Nigeria last month, with a crew of 20 Eastern Europeans aboard. It was released about five days later.
In neighbouring Benin, the trend is even more dramatic. Last year no pirate attacks were recorded off the coast of Benin – yet at least 20 such attacks have occurred off Benin this year so far.
A leading group of global insurers announced in August that the waters off Nigeria and Benin will now be placed in the same risk category as Somalia, meaning that ship owners must pay higher premiums.
The rising wave of piracy could have a devastating effect on small impoverished countries in West Africa, such as Benin, which rely on port activities for 40 per cent of its government revenue. Ships are now avoiding Benin because of the pirate attacks.
Until recently, the West African attacks were largely limited to low-level armed robberies, but they have grown into full-scale hijackings. It appears that the notorious Somali pirates are "inspiring attacks elsewhere on the world's shipping lanes, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea," UN official Taye-Brook Zerihoun warned this week.
The United Nations Security Council has expressed alarm at the trend, passing a resolution this week that calls on West African nations to increase their joint naval patrols and intensify their prosecution of pirates who are captured. Benin and Nigeria have already begun their own joint naval patrols, and an anti-piracy summit will be held among West African leaders next week.
The pirates in West Africa, unlike the Somali pirates, don't normally demand ransom for the ship crews. Instead they target the ship's fuel and cargo, seizing it and transferring it to their own ships in sophisticated operations. The fuel and cargo are then sold for quick profits in the region's thriving black market.